Although not big winners, electrical utility companies were among the companies that won funding for broadband projects through the broadband stimulus program. And as a winning project involving Missouri-based Ralls County Electric Cooperative reveals, electric company projects may be some of the first to actually begin serving customers.

The cooperative was one of the first stimulus project winners in January 2010, garnering a $9.5 million loan and a $9.5 million grant to build a fiber-to-the-home network serving 4,600 households, 311 businesses and 58 community anchor institutions.

In its project summary, the cooperative noted that its plan would minimize construction costs and red tape by using its existing pole-grid and rights-of-way. That ability also likely played a role in enabling the company to already begin offering service at a time when money other stimulus winners are just breaking ground Although RCEC still has considerable construction to complete, 100 people already have signed up for its broadband service, according to a report published by The Quincy Herald-Whig, a local media outlet.

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That number represents a take-rate of about one-third of homes passed, the report said. The cooperative’s general manager told the Herald-Whig that the company hopes to double that to two-thirds by the end of 2011. The company offers 10 Mb/s symmetrical service at $40 a month, the Herald-Whig reported.

Broadband services are being deployed and managed through Ralls Technologies, a subsidiary of RCEC that also offers broadband wireless service, although the company’s project summary filed with the Rural Utilities Service notes that the company has been able to serve less than 25% of its customers using that technology because of topography and dense forestation.

A reading of that summary provides a good idea of why RCEC won funding for its project. The company noted, for example, that its network would be “OPEN, OPEN, OPEN.” The company argued that “as a non-profit cooperative our mission is to provide value and service to our member-owners—therefore we have a direct responsibility to offer them as many providers as the network will allow, to maximize customer choice and hold prices down through competition.”

The company also noted that in its 72 years it has been instrumental in bringing positive change to its community—including providing startup capital and office space for the county 911 system. The summary even pledged to dedicate 10% of free cash flow from broadband operations for local economic development loans and grants.

RCEC’s general manager told the Herald-Whig that the company envisions eventually using its high-speed data network to support a smart grid deployment—a requirement that other rural electric cooperatives also face and which could drive further electric company fiber deployments, either on their own or in partnership with a local telco.

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